Writing Vulnerabilities: On Giving and Receiving Feedback

Image of a shadowy human figure lifting the page of a book.

A week after the deadline listed on the recruitment ad, I applied for my first writing center job. I was a year into my convoluted journey as an English major, and I had never formally tutored beyond proofreading solely for grammar, but I’d been writing fairly often (see: compulsively journaling and composing secret poems out of childhood trauma) from the age of 10. English was the only subject in high school that had never made me cry out of frustration, I’d come from a family of educators, and I now had two semesters’ worth of undergraduate workshop experience in poetry and creative nonfiction, so I figured why not?

I was asked to come in for an interview despite my lateness (and probably due to my persistence and ability to throw together a writing sample and references on short notice). Afterward, I left with the phrase we don’t hire perfect people rolling around in my head. When my soon-to-be first director had said it, it took everything in my 19-year-old self to not blurt out Good thing I don’t know shit! to her and the assistant director.

In drafting new pieces, in workshop, in revising, in editing for various publications, in training new writing center staff, in consultations, I sometimes have to work extra hard to remember that comforting assurance from my former director. Her guidance and countless other assurances, such as knowing where to find answers on my own and who to ask if I can’t, really shaped a lot of who I am now as a young professional hoping to stay in writing centers as a long term career.

Before training for my first semester as a writing consultant, I had a few misconceptions about what we did at the writing center. Many new consultants, students, and even some faculty might have misconceptions as well. I assumed I would mainly see and fix the grammar of literature papers, because that’s the kind of thing I took to the writing center before and during my time working there. In reality, English majors made up only a fraction of the appointments I had, and grammar was not the biggest priority.

While I had (and still have) a lot to learn, at its core, expressing myself through writing has always come intuitively to me, whereas from fifth grade on, I’ve spent countless nights in tears while trying to complete math homework. Building rapport with writers is one of my favorite parts of consulting, and in my first semester I was blown away by the diversity of majors and fields and life experiences of writers that walked through our doors. I also had the realization that I’d been taking that intuitive ability for granted. For some writers, the way I felt about math mirrored their experiences with writing. I wanted to help alleviate those feelings, and I still strive to do so. I think my work shifted how I viewed creative writing as well. Anyone has the ability to create art, create something meaningful through language.

In the summer of 2019, between my first and second school years of working as a consultant, I met up with my estranged father in Rome. I recently found the pros and cons list I based that decision off of, and it unfortunately predicted how that traumatic trip went with scary accuracy. I returned to Texas sooner than expected. By the time the second summer session rolled around, in which I was scheduled at the writing center every weekday between my classes, I felt utterly unprepared to do my job, or much of anything if I’m being honest. 

While on a walk across campus with my assistant director, I opened up to her about everything. The bipolar. The alcoholism. The fear. The now-empty checking and savings accounts. For some reason, I couldn’t bear to mention what at the time felt like the worst of it: the fact that the mere act of writing a short journal entry, something I had done countless times for the decade prior, left me frozen and staring at a blank page. 

Sometimes I look back on the journal I eventually filled up that summer. My dad had gotten it for me at the Keats-Shelley House while we were abroad. It’s black with a Keats quote on the matte cover—Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—and has soft, unlined pages. The writing in it is sparse, but important. What that 20-year-old needed was space to write on their own terms. That 20-year-old needed the patience of others.

I often think about the typical creative writing workshop when I’m working with a writer or reading the latest Twitter discourse. In workshop, it can be easy to take certain skills and abilities for granted if it comes more intuitively to the person giving the critique, and it can be harder to meet the submitted pieces where they are, especially if the writer is required to stay silent. In writing center work, the focus is on making better writers, not papers, even if the majority of what we see day to day is papers—they are simply a vehicle for improving writing holistically in the people we see every day. 

Writing consultants are trained to meet the writer where they are, and in my experience, no two consultations are exact copies of each other, even if similar tools, techniques, and turns of phrase are used. I’m not advocating for one over the other necessarily; workshop and consultations are two different environments and serve different nuanced purposes, but in both situations and many in between, I find it important to remember that there is a person on the other end of the critique. Entirely divorcing the art from the artist, or the writer from the required first-year composition paper, can be a disservice, especially in the latter case.

It feels obvious to say that writing is one way we communicate at a base level which leads to the vulnerability associated with it, but so many are discouraged from writing at various points in their life, and many never return to it. While appointments are kept confidential, I can say with a semblance of assuredness that being a visibly queer and bilingual consultant has likely helped some writers open up about their experiences to me.

In August of 2020, a little over a year after our Rome incident, my father died unexpectedly. The last time we spoke was at 3 a.m. in the middle of a random street I couldn’t tell you the name of. This time around, after I got the phone call from my mom, the words wouldn’t stop. I had a stack of journals to show for 2020. A stack of poems. A stack of half-written personal essays.

That August happened to be the beginning of my MFA program, my dream since my second year of undergrad. I texted group chats of my new poet friends things like I’m sorry if you’re tired of reading about my dad in workshop. I want to write about other things but I can’t stop. I couldn’t stop beating myself up about it, qualifying each and every submission I sent it. It was a vicious cycle.

Despite the doubts and insecurity the anti-grieving critic in my head filled me with, my professors, classmates (now friends), and new writing center colleagues were beyond understanding, gracious, and supportive. My family still read my dead dad poems even though it was hard for them, too. I would not have made it through without the words or supportive people in my life. I felt empowered to continue producing art involving my experiences with my dad.

Sometimes the writing consultant’s role is that of a diagnostician, or the appointment acts as a way for a writer to stay accountable when working on longer projects or pieces. The appointments where my consultant somehow manages to ask the exact right question to get me to think about what I’m trying to communicate always end up being the most productive for me. Being in control of the direction of the session is both empowering and more helpful—why spend the whole session talking about introductions when it’s really the conclusion the writer wants feedback on? To an extent the same can be true for workshop. For instance, I’m confident in my line breaks for the most part, so discussing other aspects of a poem, like the way that most of my pieces should really start at their halfway point, might be a better avenue for critique.

Having just turned 23, I am nearing comfortable for the first time in my life and I know that the words are why I’m here. As a queer Chicano kid with a difficult family situation, and later as an adult experiencing more blatant marginalization and severe mental illness, writing was and is a way to have a voice, to have agency when I don’t have it anywhere else in life. For many writers I meet, whether it be at work or in class, the same is true for them, too. Having these experiences in undergrad and now in a graduate program has helped me give and receive feedback on written works in a more productive manner as well as give myself and other writers more grace. Language matters and can combat the voiceless feeling in every manner of the word. For so many of us, writing is not only a way out but a way through.

Note: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of their past or present employers

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